Bill Gates on the Future of College

At the National Association of College and University Business Officers Annual Meeting on July 21, 2014, Bill Gates delivered an address on the “Future of College” in America. A transcription is on Mr. Gates’s blog.

Looking at the individual level of opportunity, do people have equal opportunity? The data we see shows that, unless you’re given the preparation and access to higher education, and unless you have a successful completion of that higher education, your economic opportunity is greatly, greatly reduced. There’s a lot of data recently talking about the premium in salaries for people with four-year college degrees. In 2013, people with four-year college degrees earned 98 percent more per hour, on average, than people without degrees. That differential has gone up a lot. A generation ago, it was only 64 percent.

If you look at the numbers more closely, you will also see that unemployment, partial employment, is primarily in people without four-year degrees. Our economy already is near full employment for people with full year degrees. And, so, the uncertainty, the difficulty, the challenges, faced, if you haven’t been able to get a higher education degree, are very difficult already today. And, with changes coming in the economy, with more automation, more globalization, that divide will become even more stark in the years ahead.

So, if we’re really serious about all lives having equal value, we need to make sure that the higher education system, both access, completion, and excellence, are getting the attention they need.

It is unfortunate that, although the US does quite well in the percentage of kids going into higher education, we’ve actually dropped, quite dramatically, in the percentage who complete higher education. We have, amongst developed countries, the highest dropout rate of kids who start. And, understanding why that happens is very, very important. For many of those kids, that experience is not only financially debilitating, being left with loans that are hard to pay off, but, also, psychologically, very debilitating, that they expected to complete, they tried to complete. And, whether it was math or getting the right courses, or the scheduling, somehow, they weren’t able to do that, which is a huge setback.

Worth the read in entirety.

The Best Books Bill Gates Read in 2013

I am a fan of the end-of-year lists, and this one from Bill Gates on the best books he’s read this year, is excellent:

  • The Box, by Marc Levinson. You might think you don’t want to read a whole book about shipping containers. And Levinson is pretty self-aware about what an unusual topic he chose. But he makes a good case that the move to containerized shipping had an enormous impact on the global economy and changed the way the world does business. And he turns it into a very readable narrative. I won’t look at a cargo ship in quite the same way again.
  • The Most Powerful Idea in the World, by William Rosen. A bit like The Box, except it’s about steam engines. Rosen weaves together the clever characters, incremental innovations, and historical context behind this invention. I’d wanted to know more about steam engines since the summer of 2009, when my son and I spent a lot of time hanging out at the Science Museum in London.
  • Harvesting the Biosphere, by Vaclav Smil. There is no author whose books I look forward to more than Vaclav Smil. Here he gives as clear and as numeric a picture as is possible of how humans have altered the biosphere. The book is a bit dry and I had to look up a number of terms that were unfamiliar to me, but it tells a critical story if you care about the impact we’re having on the planet.
  • The World Until Yesterday, by Jared Diamond. It’s not as good as Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel. But then, few books are. Diamond finds fascinating anecdotes about what life is like for hunter-gatherers and asks which ones might apply to our modern lifestyles. He doesn’t make some grand pronouncement or romanticize tribal life. He just wants to find the best practices and share them.
  • Poor Numbers, by Morten Jerven. Jerven, an economist, spent four years digging into how African nations get their statistics and the challenges they face in turning them into GDP estimates. He makes a strong case that a lot of GDP measurements we thought were accurate are far from it. But as I argue in my longer review, that doesn’t mean we know nothing about what works in development.

What are the best books you’ve read this year?

Bill Gates on a Reddit “Ask Me Anything”

Bill Gates took to Reddit this afternoon to do an “Ask me Anything.”  Here were a selection of my favorite questions and answers.

What do you give a man who can buy almost everything?

Q: What do people give you for your birthday, given that you can buy anything you want?

A: Free software. Just kidding.

Books actually.

On Windows…

Q: Windows 7 or Windows 8? Be honest Bill.

A: Higher is better.

And one more:

Q: Since becoming wealthy, what’s the cheapest thing that gives you the most pleasure?

A: Kids. Cheap cheeseburgers. Open Course Ware courses…

Cheap kids? Where is acquiring them from? Bill’s answer is hilarious.

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Bill Gates does a great job reviewing books on his Web site. Here are his favorite books from 2012, which I recommend perusing.

Bill Gates on the Importance of Measurement

Writing in the Saturday essay for The Wall Street Journal, Bill Gates underscores the importance of measurement:

In the past year, I have been struck by how important measurement is to improving the human condition. You can achieve incredible progress if you set a clear goal and find a measure that will drive progress toward that goal—in a feedback loop similar to the one Mr. Rosen describes.

This may seem basic, but it is amazing how often it is not done and how hard it is to get right. Historically, foreign aid has been measured in terms of the total amount of money invested—and during the Cold War, by whether a country stayed on our side—but not by how well it performed in actually helping people. Closer to home, despite innovation in measuring teacher performance world-wide, more than 90% of educators in the U.S. still get zero feedback on how to improve.

The essay touches on many issues, including vaccinations and education. Here is Gates on education reform in America:

I think the most critical change we can make in U.S. K–12 education, with America lagging countries in Asia and Northern Europe when it comes to turning out top students, is to create teacher-feedback systems that are properly funded, high quality and trusted by teachers.

Strong points throughout. As I highlighted entry #2 in my best longreads of 2012, I believe the science of measurement will become the norm in the future (especially that of self-measurement/analytics).

Bill Clinton Wants to Put “Big Brother” in Your Computer

A blast from the past today if you click here and peruse the Dole/Kemp website from 1996. A highlight about the Internet:

Bill Clinton believes in bureaucratic micro-management of the information economy.

  • Within his first 100 days as President, Bill Clinton proposed the Clipper Chip — a secret government-controlled encryption algorithm — and a companion key escrow system where two government agencies would hold a copy of the keys for every Clipper user. Since then Bill Clinton has released updated versions of encryption proposals which insist that the government hold a key to individual’s private data communications.
  • The Clinton Administration’s Internet Task Force has proposed legislation that would reduce the rights of users of copyrighted material if that information is used on the Internet. Their infamous “NII White Paper” ignored important court decisions which balance the rights of information users with those of information creators.

Funnies aside, this was an interesting aside note about this site:

The Dole for President campaign today launched its general election Web site — the first political Web site to individually-customize itself for each user’s interests, home state, and last visit.

When users first visit the site, they are given the option of setting up a custom Dole Web page. Each custom page contains a personal tool bar that welcomes the user by name, alerts them to an electronic “In Box” containing any new press releases or other campaign materials posted since their last visit, directs them to briefing papers on issues in which they expressed interest, and offers a home-state icon for local information about the Clinton record and the Dole agenda in that state.

This was in response to this Bill Gates quote: “There’s no doubt we’ll look back at Web sites today and basically say … that they were quite primitive. They don’t customize what they present to the viewers’ interests. They don’t remember: Have you been there before? What have you seen before? And that’s got to change.”